Els Dumortier, Jenneke Christiaens, and An Nuytiens INTRODUCTION
In comparative studies, the Belgian juvenile justice system has always been mentioned as one of the most welfare oriented in Europe (Put and Walgrave 2006). In the last few decades, several Western European countries have abandoned welfarism and have taken a punitive turn (Bailleau and Cartuyvels 2007; Muncie and Goldson 2006). At first sight, Belgium is not heading in that direction: the age of criminal responsibility remains very high (18 years) and juvenile justice is still underpinned by a mainly protective philosophy. However, it is important to take a closer look at this strong welfare image of the Belgian juvenile justice system. Law in books does not (necessary) correspond with law in action. In the same way political discourse and policy rarely resemble the views of professionals in the field. Policy documents therefore do not equal street level or daily practices. Moreover, recent reform (2006) of the juvenile justice system has introduced new (penal as well as restorative) elements in the welfare-oriented Belgian model.
Due to a process of federalisation in the 1970s and 1980s, Belgium has been transformed into a federal State consisting of two major communities: the French-speaking and the Dutch-speaking (or Flemish) community. This process had consequences for the organisation of the competencies concerning the juvenile justice system and the societal reaction to juvenile delinquency. The (definition of) judicial reactions to youth delinquency remained a federal matter, while the execution of educational measures imposed (by the juvenile justice judge or court) became a community competence. Recently, due to the sixth State Reform of 2014-2015, it was decided that also this definition of judicial reactions towards young delinquents will become a community competence and that the communities hence have the competence to work out new legislation. Meanwhile the federal (Belgian) Youth Protection Act of 2006 remains in place.
Because of the Belgian state structure and the tension between theory and practice, it is rather difficult to present the Belgian juvenile justice system and its practice in all its complexity. Therefore this report aims to outline the main features of the Belgian juvenile justice system and must be read as an introductory but critical report on the Belgian juvenile justice system today. We start with a historical overview of the major legal evolutions because they help us to understand both the foundations and the complexities of Belgian juvenile justice. We therefore consecutively elaborate on (1) the legal status of juvenile delinquents, (2) the age of majority, (3) the unclear boundaries between “voluntary” and “coercive” welfare measures and between the different federal and non-federal (community) entities competent in juvenile justice matters and (4) the contemporary trend of growing “hybridisation” of Belgian juvenile justice. Afterwards we focus on (5) the country’s stance towards the UN Committee on the rights of the child and on (6) trends in juvenile crime and on causes of juvenile crime. In the last part we investigate different (procedural) levels of the Belgian juvenile justice system: (7) the police, (8) the Juvenile Courts, (9) custodial rules and (10) alternative sanctions. We will end our overview with some remarks on (11) differences in treatment of boys and girls and (12) a general conclusion.